July 26, 2014, Author: Simon Weatherall
Touted as being one of the biggest games to come in 2014, the hype leading up to the release of Watch Dogs was either going to doom it into oblivion or give us everyone’s game of the year. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting to get out of it, but hacking an entire city sounded like a decent concept. My biggest concern was simply whether Ubisoft would get it right following some recent missteps with the Assassin’s Creed series, though Black Flag did admittedly strike the right balance.
So, during my time with Watch Dogs, I had a lot of ups and downs. For everything I found that bugged me about gameplay and story, I also found something else to redeem it. Although it’s probably not the best way to present a game, it’s all I had to work with.
Set in Chicago, a city now run by a computer network called ctOS, Watch Dogs has you take the role of Aiden Pearce, a masked vigilante knows as ‘The Fox’. Aiden, a competent hacker, is looking to find out who killed his niece after an attempted hit on him went wrong. Seeking vengeance against the person that ordered the hit, Aiden must use his unique skills to follow the trail and not only find out the who, but also the why. With help from a Fixer (hitman) named Jordi and a mysterious hacker called BadBoy17; Aiden will do whatever it takes to find those responsible.
Whilst the premise is leading towards a compelling story with a noble and just cause, I didn’t feel any real attachment to any of the characters and promptly forgot them as soon as I met them; I would have forgotten Aiden had I not been playing him. His brooding demeanor comes across as uncaring even in his more caring moments and, for a guy who’s meant to be emotionally invested in his own story, he doesn’t seem all that interested. So why should I be?
Aiden’s motivation in this instance was void of emotion and totally under-developed. I was never given an attachment to Lena, his niece, who you witness getting killed in distorted flashbacks at the beginning, and thus never stood to feel the loss. The same could be said for some of the other characters too. Nicole, Aiden’s sister, seems an emotionless mother for the most part, content in moving on with her life. Jackson, Aiden’s PTSD suffering nephew also left me with no reason to care. For a character so traumatised by the incident that led to his sister’s death, there is little or no character development.
The only one that I was hoping to see more of was Jordi, whose megalomaniacal, narcissistic personality seemed to make him the most interesting character. Although this was short-lived, he did pop up occasionally to add some life to the story, which is ironic considering he spends most of his time taking lives.
Aside from a lack of compelling characters, I thought the remainder of the story was okay. The plot twists and turns came at the right time and the vigilante plot kept me interested long enough to see it to the end. Sadly, this is really where the meat of the story is.
Chicago is a great setting for the events of Watch Dogs, but as beautiful as it is, I didn’t feel that I was playing a true next gen title. Even on the PS4 with higher resolution textures and skins, last gen’s GTAV simply looked better and was far more expansive. Still, like most sandbox games there are four expected elements: Exploration, story, side-quests and multiplayer. There is also the hacking of unsuspecting civilians and access points throughout the city.
Hacking is obviously the main focus of gameplay and is involved in all aspects of Watch Dogs. You can hack people’s bank accounts through their mobile phone for a source of income, you can gain access to cars, bikes, locations of criminal activity. This can be monotonous at times but for the most part it’s pretty fun. I found myself noseying at people’s text messages or listening to their calls, which can be worth a giggle. One thing that was apparent is that most people in this Chicago are sex obsessed, from being a little kinky to actually being on the sex offenders’ register.
Story progression is clearly marked on the map and relatively straightforward to follow, but it can trick you into a bit of tunnel vision; it’s just far too easy to miss all the side-quests and collectables. While it’s good you’re never forced to sample any of the side-fluff as you would be in Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs makes no time to put any focus on them, so they feel just like they’re just there to fill up the game rather than be a part of it. I ended up just following the yellow dots from start to finish until the game ended, and thus I’ve restarted the game since to catch the other stuff.
Both missions and side-quests can be completed in multiple ways: you have the choice to go in guns blazing, killing anything that moves, or to act stealthily. This is where Watch Dogs really excels. Combat is slick, with lovely motion and cover mechanics. You have a whole host of weapons to play with and, when you combine them with Aiden’s hacking talents, you become the ultimate reaper of poor souls in Chicago. For the pacifists among us, for most part you can complete objectives without alerting the enemy, doing your best Sam Fisher impression or by hacking cameras and laptops. I was always satisfied when I completed a mission regardless of the route I took, but was especially so when infiltrating a building without ever actually setting foot therein.
This is where I found every shortfall with Watch Dogs redeemed; I couldn’t wait to get into each new mission and side-quest and try something different.
While the controlling of Aiden impresses, driving is cumbersome at best and downright horrific at times. Often I felt like I was driving a roller skate with a balloon for a steering wheel. This seems to only affect the cars, though, motorbikes handle responsively and speedily, if a little unrealistically. What makes matters worse is that despite driving clearly being the worst aspect of Watch Dogs, there are whole modes and side-missions dedicated to it, which is just baffling.
The second criticism I have is that damage rarely affects your choice of automobile. It takes many, many collisions before anything looks like it’s even scratched. Damage also doesn’t seem to affect your performance cars very much, unless you happen to blow a tyre. Lest I was reluctantly forced into a car, I tended to mostly use motorcycles to get about town and travel between missions. Alternatively I’d just used the quick travel to get to the nearest safe house.
You can unlock new perks and abilities by spending the skill points Aiden earns during missions. On the fly you could learn how to make IEDs (improvised explosive device), cause blackouts and communication glitches within law enforcement. You can learn to raise road barriers to lose pursuers, stop or start trains for a clever getaway, or mess with traffic lights to cause accidents. These skills are very handy and you have to learn to pick the right ones for the right situation.
Exploration in Watch Dogs isn’t as expansive as you might think, with literally everything being presented on the map. Some of the missions need to be unlocked from the ctOS towers, which help to open up more of the area and this is similar to clambering to the top of a building and synchronising in Assassin’s Creed.
The side-missions are at least fun. For example, if you decide to take on the criminal scum situated in the city by stopping crimes or attacking criminal hideouts, you can gain the favour of the people. This means that civilians won’t be as ready to report your crimes to the police should you do something you shouldn’t. You are scored on how you solve the crimes and you can either kill or use a non-lethal takedown. Completion of this mission type does limit the police involvement in your crimes, but it doesn’t limit the Blume involvement.
Blume are the creators of the ctOS and have many agents littered around the city, and if you hack them too often they might put a contract on you. This is ties in with a clever multiplayer component which is, in my opinion, a truly fun addition. Once a hit is put out on you, another player can hack into your game and participate in mini-games. This is a function that can be turned off, but hacks come few and far between and you can stop the hit being ordered. You can also unlock perks otherwise unobtainable by other methods.
Scattered throughout the city there are people offering ‘digital trips’. These represent a variety of mini-games, each with its own online leaderboards. You can play a Carmageddon-type game where you run civilians over or blow up the city. There are also some AR games that you can play in-game too, which see you running around following a money trail or blasting aliens while other people think Aiden is crazy. I didn’t feel there was any real point to them and, although a fun little aside, once I had a quick go I didn’t really have the urge to go back to them.
I really enjoyed the ‘Privacy Invasion’ side-missions, however, which has you invade houses to see what people are doing. Some of the video feeds are quite amusing and it was a nice break from the main story. Unfortunately, there were only thirty of them to do. Elsewhere, you can check in at different locations a la Four Square, collect audio files and other hidden extras around the city. I did find looking for QR codes to unlock secret mission a nice challenge, and the same can also be said for following the bodies left in the wake of a serial killer; both nice compliments to the main storyline.
Aside from the ability for other players to hack your game, there are some more traditional online multiplayer options for you to jump in to that are flawlessly woven into the world and most have their own ‘hacker’ twist. Free Roam is the most typical, allowing for death matches, while ctOS Mobile Challenge has you playing cops and robbers, trying to escape another player’s attempts to capture you. In Hacking you try to hack another player’s phone to steal data before they find or kill you, or vice versa. In Decryption players need to get to and download a file before their opponent. There are online races, but again the atrocious vehicle handling meant that they were something I wasn’t too keen on spending much time in.
With characters you can easily forget and some truly terrible driving mechanics, Watch Dogs doesn’t exactly make the best first impression. Thankfully, its slick mechanics, tight combat and open-ended approach to missions really do go a real long way in redeeming Ubisoft’s work here.
Because of that, despite not being the flawless game it had promised, I did truly have plenty of real fun along the way and had no issue whatsoever in starting the game again as soon as I’d finished. Worth a go, but not quite and great as it should be.